On Travel, Cities, and Ghosts

Travel makes cities. As people, goods, and ideas flow in and out, a series of arrivals and departures allows traces to form and aggregate – the ephemeral gives birth to a site of geographical permanence.  It is this, the motion of travel as well as its sites, the ephemeral in the city, which Charles Harbutt succeeds in capturing in his book of photographs: Departures and Arrivals. [1]
Harbutt once described the photograph as a ‘blink’ in human perception[2]. In this book he turns his artificial blinking eye on traces and textures in the city. He captures travel itself. The camera examines interiors and exteriors of modes of transport: trains, carts, and automobiles. Harbutt also photographs the in-between spaces associated with travel, places of liminality and flux: doorways, vacated chairs, road crossings, stairways, and (with a wry smile) the interior of a funeral parlour – a photograph I will return to in more detail below.
Many of the images are out-of-focus, grainy texture-scapes, or photographs of people and places mirrored in reflective surfaces. They are photographs of ghosts. One particularly remarkable image (entitled Englishtown, New Jersey, 1987) [3]looks like a superimposition of a human shadow on a landscape distorted by motion-blur.[4]
Harbutt photographs that which, in the moment immediately after the close of the shutter, and possibly even during its blink, is already barely there, elusive, escaping, gone. Perhaps paradoxically, by capturing journeys, Harbutt hints at permanence. And he does this precisely by dwelling on that which is ephemeral. Each image is a tightrope walk between death and immortality.
The photograph in the book which most powerfully expresses this concern with passage and permanence – and evokes an intriguing reading of the urban condition – is an image of a funeral service. The caption in the book’s image index labels it: Italy, 1989.[5] The photograph is developed as a kind of enlarged contact sheet. It consists of three individual shots or (to put it in more Harbuttian terms) three stages in one photographic journey. The first image depicts two out-of-focus, empty chairs in the interior of a funeral parlour, further blurred by burnt-out artefacts on the film and a curious light pattern that flows across the frame-divide into the next shot. Here we see an open casket. An elderly man mourns an elderly woman. The third and final shot is a close-up of the body in the casket. The focus is on a bouquet beside the coffin. The body of the deceased is blurry and soft – an impression, a wisp rather than a cadaver.  The blurring and light artefacts that Harbutt has taken care to retain in the final image may have come about as a result of the film development process or they may have occurred in-camera. However they came to be there, they hint at the movement of light – they are visual ghosts, literally haunting the final image. One early use of the photographic medium was the attempt to capture evidence of ghostly presences in haunted houses. When combined with Harbutt’s subject – a death, a passing – the presence of smoky chimeras on the photographic paper seems to deliberately allude to this history. The visual ghosts are a clear reference to death and the metaphysical. However, less literally and more importantly, they allow the viewer to think of the photograph itself as the point of permanence in the exchange between the human being and the capture of reality. The image is not the ghost: we are. The shot is the material proof we leave behind of our existence.
We have previously in this blog mentioned the salt photographs of William Henry Fox Talbot. For Talbot, the photograph was a ghostly reminder of the real. In a lecture he gave at the NYU in 1970, Harbutt recalled Talbot’s description of photographs as ‘…fairy images, creations of a moment, destined to fade away…’[6] For Harbutt, however, the very opposite of this is true. [7] The photographs themselves are lasting. They are the afterimages of passing that remain. In the same speech, Harbutt cited the words of Talbot’s wife, describing the camera as a ‘mousetrap’. ‘Photographers’, he said, expanding on this idea, ‘are trappers – reality trappers.’[8]
Reading the city through Harbutt’s images by way of this notion, we can think of the urban space itself as a kind of photograph. At the same time, we can read the city in motion as a camera, a reality trap. Harbutt’s focus on texture and surface when he shoots hotel vitrines in Mexico, brick walls in New Jersey, or the concrete flatness of a parking lot in Merida, Yucatán, invites us to think of the metropolis as a light-sensitive emulsion on which we leave behind the traces of our trajectories through time. The city is both a photograph and a camera – a mousetrap for ghostly voyages, literal and metaphorical. When describing the cities that we inhabit, we often speak of our usual ‘haunts’. When Harbutt describes the city as an image, he captures this haunting.

P.S. Sadly, Charles Harbutt passed away on the 30th of June this year. As I look through this album of spectral departures and arrivals, in cities around the world – the remains of a presence now gone – I mentally wish him bon voyage.

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[1] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, Damiani, Bologna: 2012.
[2] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer”, speech given at NYU, Spring 1970, transcript, Visura Magazine, http://www.visuramagazine.com/charles-harbutt-unconcerned, accessed 17 August 2015.
[3] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, p. 90.
[4] I believe the superimposition is not a photographer’s trick but that it was captured in-camera, a reflection on the glass surface of a train window.
[5] Charles Harbutt, Departures and Arrivals, p. 87.
[6] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer.”
[7] Mara Arts has made the observation that, while both Talbot and Harbutt were working with photography, Talbot’s salt photographs really did fade with time. The difference between their views of photography is thus more than a conceptual quirk – it is one resulting from a changing medium, photography itself in flux.
[8] Charles Harbutt, “The Unconcerned Photographer.”



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